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Campylobacter is a germ that causes a disease called Campylobacteriosis; which is a diarrhoeal disease that is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. The estimates that campylobacter causes 280,000 cases of food poisoning every year.
There are two main species of the germ which cause the majority of infections in humans: campylobacter jejuni and campylobacter coli. Infection from campylobacter can cause a range of symptoms associated with diarrhoea when ingested, as well as sometimes causing flu-like symptoms.
In severe cases, infection from campylobacter can lead to more severe illnesses depending on a person’s level of risk (such as being a young child, or having an underlying health condition).
Illness is caused when people are exposed to the germ, such as when:
- Eating raw or undercooked meat, especially poultry (campylobacter is most commonly found in poultry).
- Eating foods that are contaminated with the germ.
- Eating seafood (campylobacter has been found in some types of shellfish).
- Drinking dirty or untreated water.
- Drinking milk that has not been pasteurised.
- Becoming exposed to the germ from animals who have the bacteria (for example, being in contact with animals that have diarrhoea).
- Becoming exposed to the bodily fluids of other people that have the illness without maintaining thorough hygiene routines.
What can trigger and spread the disease?
Animals carry the campylobacter germ which can then be passed on to humans through consumption of animal products or simply contact with animals. The British Poultry Council estimate that over 50% of campylobacteriosis is caused by chicken, but the disease can also be found in other poultry and livestock, seafood, unpasteurised milk and domestic pets.
The animals that carry the germ do not necessarily present as being unwell; which makes the germ hard to detect unless produce is tested and analysed by scientists. The campylobacter germ is carried in the animals’ organs or gut, and in farming and food manufacturing it can be spread to other edible parts of the animal during slaughter.
Contamination from milk occurs when a cow carries the germ in its udder, or if the milk has been contaminated with manure. Occasionally, humans can become infected with the disease through consuming contaminated fruit or vegetable products. As well as cross-contamination, this can occur if the fruit or vegetables have been grown in soil or water that been in contact with animal faeces that could contain campylobacter.
The most common way that campylobacter is contracted is by consumption of uncooked meat (mostly chicken). Another common transmission method is through cross-contamination. An example of cross-contamination is the juice of raw meat being left on a chopping board where other food is also going to be prepared.
This causes cross-contamination because the next piece of food that is prepared on the same chopping board could pick up the campylobacter germs that have been left on it. Then, when you eat the prepared food, you are likely to develop food poisoning caused by the campylobacter germ.
Another form of cross-contamination is through incorrect food storage. If raw meat is kept in close proximity to cooked produce, the germs from the raw meat could contaminate the fresh or cooked produce. If a person then consumes the fresh or cooked food that has been stored too close to the raw meat, they could develop illness from campylobacter.
It is easy to develop campylobacteriosis from campylobacter as it only requires a small amount of exposure to the germs to cause illness. The infective dose is even lower for children, older people, or those who have an underlying health condition that weakens their immune system. The germs cannot be seen with the naked eye, or even smelt or tasted, but if food or drink smells or tastes “off”, it is likely that it is unsafe for human consumption.
How can campylobacter be prevented and killed?
Practising good food hygiene can help to prevent campylobacter from infecting you. Ensuring that you chill, store and cook your meat properly, as well as clean up properly after yourself, can help to keep your household safe.
When chilling uncooked meat, it should always be stored soon after purchase in a refrigerator at a temperature of 5oC or below. You can find out more about food storage and preparation in our guide to defrosting food safely. Germs breed in warmer temperatures as the heat incubates them causing them to multiply, which is why proper food storage is important.
Storing food at these temperatures helps to prevent germs from developing on the surface of the meat. You can avoid cross-contamination by ensuring that when you store raw meat, it is kept separately to any fresh or cooked produce. When arranging the food in your refrigerator, to avoid cross-contamination, raw meat should be stored on the bottom shelf to ensure that any raw meat juices do not drip onto other food.
Other ways to prevent the risk of ingesting campylobacter is to ensure that you cook your meat thoroughly. This is especially important for chicken and other poultry produce, as chicken and poultry are the main causes of campylobacteriosis.
Chicken and poultry should be cooked thoroughly, ensuring that there is no pink meat, and that the meat juices run clear. The temperature of the meat should be steaming hot all the way through, to ensure that it is cooked properly.
If you have leftovers, it is important that they are also covered, left to cool, and chilled correctly (ensuring that they no longer are stored on the raw meat shelf, but on a separate shelf). This is because once cooked food has been left to chill, it opens the possibility of germs forming on the meat due to its change in temperature.
Leftover chicken should be re-heated with caution, ensuring that the temperature is hot and steaming all the way through; the same as when cooking the meat from its raw state.
When preparing raw chicken and other poultry to cook, the NHS advise not to wash the raw meat. Washing meat is a prime cause of cross-contamination as it can quickly spread germs around your kitchen. When you wash meat, the water droplets that splash from the meat can travel up to 50cm in all directions.
Some water droplets can be so small that you may not even notice them; leaving the surface unknowingly contaminated. This poses the risk of cross-contamination the next time you use the surface if it is not thoroughly cleaned.
It is the cooking of raw chicken and other uncooked meats that kill the campylobacter bacteria on the actual food. To kill campylobacter that could be in your kitchen or other surfaces you can use a mild bleach solution that is found in most household cleaning products.
Always ensure that you read the labels on your cleaning products as some products require the solution to be left on the surface for a couple of minutes before wiping clean. This time period ensures that the product thoroughly disinfects the surface, and kills the germs, such as campylobacter.
Another way of killing campylobacter is by practising appropriate handwashing techniques after touching raw meat, touching contaminated surfaces, or coming into contact with human or animal bodily fluids.
Professionals that handle and prepare food have a duty to prevent campylobacter by using safe food handling and hygiene practices. They should follow the advice explained in the “How can campylobacter be prevented and killed?” section of this guide, and ensure that their kitchens have properly labelled utensils and chopping boards to keep raw meat and other produce separate.
There can be a higher risk of contracting campylobacter during travelling to other countries due to the reduced food preparation and hygiene standards. You can consult a health professional prior to travel to check the diseases and practices that can be common in the country that you are travelling to.
As well as this, there are some basic principles that you can follow whilst abroad that can help you to stay safe and prevent infection from campylobacter.
- Maintaining personal hygiene – Wash your hands before eating to ensure that no micro-organisms are present that you could transfer to your food. This is especially important if you have been in contact with animals, as animals can be a source of campylobacter through their bodily fluids.
- Check that your food is cooked properly – You can cut into the middle of your meat to ensure that it is cooked all the way through.
- Avoid buffets and street vendors – Although food from buffets and street vendors can be a cheap way to eat whilst travelling, these food sources do not always follow safe food hygiene practices. Raw meat is not always stored chilled or in a separate space to other foods, which risks campylobacter being present.
- Avoid tap water abroad – Tap water in other countries is not treated the same as it is in the UK. Due to this, it can be a carrier of campylobacter and other dangerous bacteria. When abroad, you should always buy bottled water to minimise the risk of contracting illness.
If someone ingests the campylobacter germs, they may start to develop symptoms of food poisoning within two to five days (although some people may experience symptoms within one day of contracting the germ). The symptoms of campylobacteriosis can often last up to one week.
We have listed the main symptoms of campylobacteriosis below, to help you further identify what campylobacter is, and whether you have contracted the campylobacteriosis illness.
- Diarrhoea – This is the main symptom of campylobacteriosis. Campylobacteriosis is a diarrhoeal illness, so all cases of the illness will cause this symptom. The diarrhoea usually lasts for up to two days before the symptom passes. In the two days of illness there is no requirement to seek medical attention as the symptom will often pass during this time. In some cases, people suffering from the illness may experience diarrhoea for longer than two days. In this situation, you are encouraged to seek medical advice. An indication of more severe symptoms of diarrhoea include having blood in your stools, severe pain when passing stools, and severe stomach cramps.
- Sickness – Campylobacter can cause nausea and physical sickness in combination with other symptoms such as diarrhoea. Often you may be unable to eat or drink anything without feeling nauseous, or physically vomiting. This alone, or in combination with diarrhoea, can become more dangerous when you are unable to drink water to maintain healthy levels of hydration. Sickness can cause dehydration which can be noticed from darker urine, a dry mouth, dry skin, or dizziness.
- Fever – It is common for sickness and diarrhoea to cause a fever; sickness and diarrhoea are the main indication of campylobacteriosis, and fever is also common.
- Stomach cramps – It is common for sickness and diarrhoea to cause stomach cramps (especially diarrhoea), so this is also a common symptom.
- Tiredness – Experiencing the symptoms listed above can reduce your appetite for food or drink; as they feel like they exacerbate the symptoms. Due to this, the body can feel exhausted with lack of energy. This can also result in aches or even chills.
- More severe complications – Some people who develop campylobacteriosis can have complications which lead to more severe illnesses. This can be because of an underlying health condition, or a person being in an at-risk group. Some of the severe complications the illness can cause are irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis.
As mentioned in the previous section, campylobacteriosis does not usually require any specific medical treatment. However, there are some tips that can be followed to help ease symptoms to speed up recovery.
We have included some advice for managing symptoms of campylobacter below:
- Stay at home and get plenty of rest in bed.
- Use over-the-counter pain relief to help relieve symptoms of stomach cramps or headache.
- Try to sip water throughout each day to maintain healthy levels of hydration. Sickness and diarrhoea can cause dehydration which, in turn, can worsen symptoms and lead to more health complications. Taking smaller sips of water than you usually would can help to ease feelings of nausea while drinking. You should stick to drinking water as opposed to fizzy drinks and fruit juices, as they can feed diarrhoea and cause it to worsen.
- Replenish electrolytes with drinks containing them. Electrolytes is the name for a group of key minerals that are vital in regulating the body’s key functioning and maintaining healthy pH levels. When you go without food and drink, your electrolytes reduce which can cause your symptoms to worsen because it will be even harder for your body to function. You can buy over-the-counter rehydration powder sachets that can be diluted into water to combat this.
- Eat when feelings of nausea have reduced. However, it is best to stick to plain foods to help prevent nausea from developing and to keep the stomach settled.
In some instances, further treatment than the advice above may be required. This can be due to a more severe case of campylobacteriosis (especially in cases causing issues such as irritable bowel syndrome).
If symptoms of campylobacteriosis persist longer than a few days, you can seek advice from a doctor who may prescribe antibiotics to treat the illness. Antibiotic treatment can be more likely in older people over the age of 65, pregnant women, people with underlying health conditions that have weakened immune systems, and children.